Mechanism to Test Soil Fertility and Moisture in Small- and Family Owned-Farms

Table: ENV1
Experimentation location: Home
Regulated Research (Form 1c): No
Project continuation (Form 7): No

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Anderson, Lorena. "Robots and People Working Together to save Water, Enhance Agriculture." 
     University of California, 14 Dec. 2016, 
     robots-and-people-working-together-save-water-enhance-agriculture. Accessed 23 Jan. 2022. 
"Farms and Their Value of Production by Farm Type, 2020." U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic 
     Research Service, 1 Dec. 2021, 
     chart-detail/?chartId=58288. Chart. 
Jain, Ira. "Smart Farms? How AI Can Solve Water Wastage.", 10 Apr. 2019, 
     smart-farms-how-ai-can-solve-water-wastage-%EF%BB%BF/. Accessed 23 Jan. 2022. 
Väljaots, E., et al. Soil Sampling Automation Using Mobile Robotic Platform. Report no. 1406-894X, 
     Agronomy Research, 2018. Estonian University of Life Sciences, 
     AR.18.138. Accessed 10 Mar. 2022. 
"Water in Agriculture." World Bank, 8 May 2020, 
     Accessed 23 Jan. 2022. 


Additional Project Information

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Research paper:
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Project files:
Project files

Research Plan:



A. Question or Problem being addressed (Rationale)

In agriculture, many farmers use the same treatment (for example watering or fertilizing) for large areas of crops, which may consist of several acres. This results in the overuse of water and resources like fertilizer, neither of which are very cheap. In addition, nitrogen runoff caused by excess fertilizer raises the possibility of water poisoning. Even for the farmers who check each section of their fields and administer resources accordingly, the task is extremely tedious and repetitive, taking several hours or days. They need to take samples of each section, send them to a lab, wait for an analysis, and take the appropriate measures. In addition, sending it to a lab costs farmers as much as $600 every season. While several innovative techniques are being explored including the use of robotics and drones, the mechanisms are quite large and expensive. Small- and medium- sized farmers, who make up about 80% (USDA) of the farming population and 50% of the industry, cannot afford to use these solutions; they are simply not designed for their category of farms. Hence, this project aims to do the following:

  1. Build a mechanism to analyze a field for moisture and fertility. 
  2. The aforementioned mechanism should be small in size to ensure portability and prove cost-effective for small and family-owned farms. 
  3. This mechanism would be able to test each section of the field for water content and fertility as well as record data without the need for lab analysis or sample collection. 

B. Goals/Expected Outcomes/Hypotheses (Research Questions)

  1. What are the basic pieces of information (moisture content, nitrogen, ammonia, etc.) that are useful to a farmer that such a mechanism could be used for? Is there a seasonality to such requirements?
  2. What are physical constraints in a field that should be considered while designing a mechanism? 
  3. What are the results that are useful to farmers for insightful decision making? 
  4. What is the economic aspect that should be considered while this mechanism is designed?
  5. For the vectors that are shortlisted, what are the best ways to analyze on site without compromising portability, robustness of the mechanism?
  6. What are the other design considerations while designing the mechanism?
    1. Robotic arm
    2. How does the mechanism move on a terrain and operate under various weather conditions
    3. Autonomous or not or both
      1. If humans, remote control (frequency, range, etc.)
      2. If autonomous, boundaries? Obstacles? Which area has already been sampled? GPS enabled? Image recognition for detecting obstructions?
    4. How is the robot powered?
  7. What are the other design considerations for sample analysis?
    1. Are there any existing sensors that can be used for this purpose?
    2. What is being measured? Strength, abundance, etc.?
    3. What are the possible sensory mechanisms which can be incorporated without compromising the physical aspects of the robot (vision, touch, smell, etc.)?

C. Description in detail of method or procedures

  • Procedures: Detail all procedures and experimental design to be used for data collection
  1. A robot to analyze a field for moisture and soil fertility.
    1. Contact a local farmer to schedule a site visit to gather information and data. Also contact a professor who specializes in robotics and environmental engineering to ask potential questions based on research papers on the subject and past projects that center around farm engineering. 
    2. Use OnShape or some other designing tool to design various robot chassis, mechanisms, or other features of the robot. 
  2. The aforementioned robot should be small in size to ensure portability and cost-effectiveness. 
    1. From the designs created in step 1, pick one that is feasible, cost-efficient, and practical. 
    2. Prototype the design in step 2a, keeping in mind that this is a prototype and not a final version. 
    3. Choose a design, create a part list, and order the necessary materials. MAKE SURE THE DESIGN IS SUCCESSFUL PRIOR TO FINALIZING IT
  3. The robot should have sensors capable of conducting an on-site analysis. This mechanism would be able to test each section of the field as well as record data without the need for lab analysis or sample collection.
  1. Repeat steps 1 and 2, this time designing the element sensors.
  2. Are there sensors available off-the-shelf that can be fitted to the robot? Or should they be designed bespoke? 
  3. Evaluate options such as Arduino or Raspberry Pi and the components that integrate with them, such as servos, gear motors, cameras, etc.. 
  4. Develop the robot incrementally and iteratively to facilitate testing. If needed, return to the above steps for any possible adjustments or improvements. If it is possible, contact a farm beforehand to schedule a test on an actual setting. 


Data Analysis: 

  • Site visit with a local farmer to learn about standard farming methods and techniques as well as to answer basic questions about the logistics of the project. 
  • Discussion with UC’s Professor Carpin, who previously did a similar project. Read a few other research papers and gather questions to ask the professor. 
  • Build the robot and run several tests, cross-checking to make sure the data is accurate.

Questions and Answers

1. What was the major objective of your project and what was your plan to achieve it? 

       a. Was that goal the result of any specific situation, experience, or problem you encountered?  

       b. Were you trying to solve a problem, answer a question, or test a hypothesis?

The main objective of the project was to design a mechanism capable of testing a farming field for moisture and fertility levels. The plan was to build a robot that would be able to travel a distance, use a sensor, and report the data back to the farmer. The goal was a result of a problem I encountered while discussing farming techniques with a local farmer. I learned that many modern solutions that address the issue of the wasting of resources are only really applicable to large-scale farms. Thus, I attempted to solve a problem by creating a cost-efficient and portable solution for smaller farmers. 

2. What were the major tasks you had to perform in order to complete your project?

       a. For teams, describe what each member worked on.

For this project, I had to CAD, plan out, build, and program my robot. A major task was determining which control system to use and learning how to use it, as I was not knowledgeable in Raspberry Pi prior to this project. 


3. What is new or novel about your project?

       a. Is there some aspect of your project's objective, or how you achieved it that you haven't done before?

       b. Is your project's objective, or the way you implemented it, different from anything you have seen?

       c. If you believe your work to be unique in some way, what research have you done to confirm that it is?

What separates my solution from others that also address resource wastage is that mine is targeted at small farmers. According to a report by the USDA, small farmers make up 80% of the farming population and 50% of the industry's generated revenue. With this in mind, a solution that would apply to them would have a large impact. 


4. What was the most challenging part of completing your project?

      a. What problems did you encounter, and how did you overcome them?

      b. What did you learn from overcoming these problems?

The most challenging part of the project was likely the control system and the programming aspects. Having never worked with Raspberry Pi before and having a rudimentary knowledge of Python, I had to learn many skills for the first time while doing my project, such as how to make a motor spin a quarter-rotation using a Python command. Another challenging part was determining a method to take a reading of the soil, since the sampling arm often touched the ground at an angle. After numerous attempts, I was able to learn both skills. From overcoming these problems, I learned about how to use Python with robotics as well as how to use the parts at my disposal to craft a solution to a specific problem.  


5. If you were going to do this project again, are there any things you would you do differently the next time?

I would likely work on using a GPS or some other navigation device to give the robot more functionality in determining a path to take to test all the inputted points. 

6. Did working on this project give you any ideas for other projects? 

There are multiple things I would wish to add to this project, such as a GPS system for navigation, a way to interface with large irrigation pumps to make use of the data collected with the robot, and a database to store data for numerous tests, something not feasible as the program is. I would also add separate sensors for Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium, since that would provide farmers with more data. Currently, the robot only gives a "fertility" value, which combines all three. With time, I would also make use of OpenCV or other visual programs that would allow the robot to become more functional. 

7. How did COVID-19 affect the completion of your project?

The supply shortage during the COVID-19 pandemic caused a slight delay in obtaining the parts necessary for the robot, but it did not really hinder the progress of the project. In addition, I looked at alternatives, which helped me learn more as I progressed my project.